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Should I stay or should I go? Long Island senior citizens decide where to age

Bernard Banks, 95, right, has decided to live

Bernard Banks, 95, right, has decided to live at home into older age. Here he's seen with his son Steven, who also lives in the family's East Meadow home. "It's great," Steven said. "I'd rather him be here than in a nursing facility or assisted living. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Having lived in his East Meadow home for nearly 65 years, Bernard Banks doesn’t plan to move.

“It’s very comfortable here,” said Banks, 95. “It’s well maintained. It’s a well-built house.”

Bernard, who worked as a mechanical engineer for Republic Aviation, lives with Steven, the youngest of his three sons. In addition, for the past two years Bernard has had a full-time aide who cooks and keeps him company while Steven’s at work. Bernard’s wife, Gladys, died 12 years ago.

“I used to drive. I gave it up when I reached 90,” remarked Banks, adding, “It’s a nice arrangement to have a nice house. It’s lovely, paid for. I used to do the upkeep on it, but the house is holding together very nicely.”

According to a 2018 national AARP survey, 76 percent of Americans age 50 and over said that they would like to remain in their homes, but only 46 percent anticipate being able to do so. The survey further found that one third of homeowners over the age of 18 anticipate they'll need to modify their homes to accommodate them as they age; and 24 percent of homeowners age 50 and older say they would rather move than make those accommodations. Either way, entering older age means it's time to think about future living arrangements.

Staying busy at home

These days, Banks can frequently be found in his backyard, planting and maintaining his flower garden or simply admiring the towering beech, silver and red oak trees.

On warm days, he might go to the beach with Steven or for a stroll with his aide and the assistance of a walker.

Recalling the long walks he’d take with his parents in Brooklyn, from their Bensonhurst home to Coney Island, Banks said, “I come from a family of walkers.”

On Monday nights, Banks often can be spotted performing karaoke at La Focaccia, a Levittown restaurant, with his singing buddy, Derick Oliver.                    

Oliver, 59, of Uniondale, who’s a singer in a band, said since meeting Banks a year ago on karaoke night, he’s asked the elder gentleman to accompany him.

“I have a great time with him,” Oliver said. “He’s a beautiful guy. I love that guy. And, he’s got a voice, too!”  

For his part, Banks limits their duet repertoire to songs of a more recent vintage.

“I know songs that go back 100 years, but he doesn’t know them,” Banks quipped. “So, we do ‘New York, New York’ and things like that.”

On other evenings, Banks often goes out to dinner with one of his sons.

“Thank God my health is OK,” Banks said. “I don’t have any pains or aches. People say they can’t believe I’m as old as I am — I look and sound about 70.”

Accommodations at home

Since his dad gave up driving, Steven, 60, an appliance salesman, said he’s happy to do the shopping for the household and drive his dad around.

“It’s great,” Steven said. “I’d rather him be here than in a nursing facility or assisted living. I could see him when I come home. I say hello to him, spend a little time with him. It’s good that he’s in his house and not in a foreign surrounding.”  

Two years ago, the family installed a stair lift to save Bernard walking up and down the stairs of his split-level home, where neither the bedrooms nor bathrooms are on the main level. Bernard continues to navigate the few steps to the outdoors, noted his son Scott Banks, 64, of Huntington Station.

“We want him to exercise a little bit,” said Scott, a chiropractor. “Going up and down the steps is good. You don’t use it, you lose it.”

Echoing his brother Steven’s sentiments, Scott said, “I think he’s much better living in his own house, in his own room, in his own bathroom, in his own kitchen. My father’s house is a piece of artwork.”

Move to communal living

When it came to deciding where to move, Priscilla and Donald Schwabe knew exactly where to go: the same continuing care retirement community where Donald’s mom lived for five years before moving from independent living to a skilled nursing facility.

“So we knew of her being here and being so happy here,” said Priscilla, 73, who worked for Scope Education Services, which runs before- and after-school programs.

Two years ago, the Schwabes moved to an apartment in the independent-living section of Jefferson’s Ferry in South Setauket. Before that, they’d lived in Smithtown for 52 years.

Jefferson's Ferry is among hundreds of continuing care retirement community nationwide that provide different levels of care depending on need. Jefferson’s Ferry has independent-living cottages and apartments for 300 residents and a 100-resident health center with assisted living, memory support and skilled nursing/rehabilitation units.

“It was easy for us to adjust because we were so familiar with the place,” Priscilla said. “I know that’s not the case for others, who have varying levels of adjustment at first.”

“We knew exactly what this type of a facility was,” agreed Donald, 77, who owned a machine shop. “After a while, the house just got to be a burden. You didn’t want to bother dealing with the grass, the gutters, the roof and the plumbing.”

As they got older, the Schwabes also started to feel out of place in their former neighborhood.

“When we were younger and had all the kids, that’s where you met all the people,” Donald said. “As you got older, and the kids left, and people left and retired, you didn’t get to meet the newer people as much because you didn’t have as much in common with them.”

Still, Priscilla said that downsizing to an approximately 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment brought its own challenges: They had to give away, donate or sell many of their possessions.

“That’s always the hardest process, I think,” she said. “Deciding what you have to get rid of and what you’re going to keep, in the way of furniture and even things you’ve collected over the years.

“We found our kids didn’t really want very much,” Priscilla said. “That seems to be a general thing people have found.”

A range of activities

Donald starts the day with water aerobics in the pool in the community center and often goes for walks along the paths of the 50-acre development. Or he’ll work out in the community center's gym.

“There’s always friends and things to do, to the point that there’s so much to do that you can’t do it all,” Donald said of the community.

“We have more of a social life and more activities going on since we moved here than we did when we were in the house,” agreed Priscilla, who participates in monthly book club discussions and a German language group.

The couple also volunteer for the community: Priscilla maintains the database for the Library Committee; Donald discerns repair needs from his perch on both the Buildings and Grounds committees.

The Schwabes also participate in lectures, current events groups, movie and trivia nights, and live musical entertainment, from singalongs to classical music.

“I don’t cook very much, because there’s a meal a day included. It’s wonderful,” Priscilla said, adding, “In the winter, if the weather is bad, you might have just sat at home and said ‘I don’t feel like going out tonight.’ But, because it’s right here, it’s very convenient.”

Donald and Priscilla still drive, but they said that those who don’t can use transportation provided by the community.

“It’s like being in a hotel or a cruise ship. It’s like living in a resort,” David said.

Advice to others

Noting how much an independent living community has enriched their lives, Priscilla advised people not to wait until they need more intensive services to move — she and her husband, she said, "are both in excellent health."

“It’s not like you’re going somewhere where things are getting smaller for you. They’re really getting bigger for you in many ways,” she said of the social and activity components of the community.

If a spouse gets sick and needs to spend time in rehab or skilled nursing in the health center, it’s a lot easier to visit in a continuing care community, where all the buildings, except for the independent living cottages, are connected, Donald said. “It’s all under one roof. It’s very comforting that way, that you know that you have that access to your spouse.”

The Schwabes’ son and two daughters also take comfort in knowing their parents are well cared for.

“It’s great to know that since we’re not close by, if they do need any care, it’s available to them there at whatever level,” Christine Vavolizza, 48, said about her parents’ move to Jefferson's Ferry.

“Whether it’s bad weather in the winter, we know they’re not in a home that they have to care for,” added Vavolizza, a school psychologist who lives in upstate Pleasantville. “All of that is taken care of for them, so we just know that they’re safe.

Considering a move?

Continuing care retirement communities are not for everyone, noted Cathy DeAngelo, vice president of sales and marketing for Jefferson’s Ferry.

“We try and aspire for that, but there’s people who prefer to stay at home,” DeAngelo said, adding, “It’s really the importance of having a plan and understanding what that plan is, and being prepared.”

From her own experience with two sets of parents, DeAngelo came to see how much better her mother and her husband fared living in a community, though her father and his wife have decided to age at home.

“People who stay home tend to self-isolate, not intentionally, but just because it gets more difficult to get out,” she said.

For anyone considering moving to a community, DeAngelo recommends visiting it several times to learn as much as they can about the place. They should speak to people who live there and possibly spend an overnight or two to experience it.

Once they’ve moved in, she said, they should give themselves time to adjust. Adapting to a community can take three to six months, DeAngelo said.

“Some people maybe have moved a lot in their lives, [they] kind of acclimate quickly," she said. "Some people who haven’t moved in 60 or 50 years, may take a little longer, because it’s different: It’s communal living.”

She also advised people to involve their children or other loved ones in the decision making. “I think it’s important for family members to be on the same page,” she said.

Downsizing personal belongings, DeAngelo said, also can be difficult. She recommends people keep only things they use in their daily life and consider consulting the nonprofit National Association of Senior Move Managers (nasmm.org) to find a professional to help with their move. The site also offers checklists and tips for planning a move.

No matter your living arrangements, socialization is vital to promoting seniors’ mental, physical and emotional health, DeAngelo said.

“You need to be around other people. That’s important.”

— Arlene Gross

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